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Archive for the ‘Hebrew (language)’ Category

Without You, we are nothing at all. So whatever holiness we call forth, it is really as though You were calling and doing it all. Our mind and strength are entirely Your own. … All our deeds are nothing more than a response to your call. When we turn ourselves toward the good, fulfilling Your pure will, it is just like [You] responding [to Yourself.] — ‘Avodat Yisrael

The confession of undiminished astonishment is rare in a literature that is so used to providing answers and explanations. In the end, we are being told here, they are all worth nothing. All we can do is stand before the mystery—and go on living and following God’s word in this strange world. —Editors, Speaking Torah, Vol. 1 

T’tzaveh continues the instructions regarding the mishkan, but moves to ritual practices and purgations and hallowings (kadesh-ings) of the priests. In several places I read this week the reminder that mishkan and shekhinah share the same Hebrew root (but nowhere did anyone actually give the root). But with a little sleuthing, I found the root שכן, to dwell. It is to the relationship between holiness and in-dwelling, the relationship between the physical (the mishkan) and that which dwells in it (the shekhinah) that I found myself returning to through the week.

The text of the parashat moves quickly and frankly from the ‘eternal light’ of the menorah through the bloody rituals of sacrifice. But nearly all the commentary I found on the text focused almost exclusively either on the imagery of the light of the menorah from the first few verses of the parashat, or an anthropological explanation of the rituals of animal sacrifices and the significance of blood to the ancient Hebrews. On the second count, I found myself wanting more depth and complexity. Clearly, the ancient Hebrews saw blood as something essential, a substance of deep significance in the structure of life and the world as they saw it. And just as clearly, the post-Temple rabbinic tradition has replaced blood and ritual sacrifice with notions of transcendence and in-dwelling. But I want to know more about the ways that such rituals function culturally and the way they are experienced. I suspect there are some good anthropological texts out there that treat such things; I will need to look for them, however.

When I was preparing for the hatafat dam brit, I read several commentaries on the ritual of shedding of blood of convert men, including a book about circumcision called Covenant of Blood by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. Hoffman’s views are pretty critical of the ways that blood rituals developed from their ancient roots through Rabbinic judaism; and he begins with a willingness for the ancients to be seen as responding to their lived experiences rather than what we moderns might judge as bloodthirstiness or simple wrongheadedness. Yet it was hard for me not to read the passaged about spreading blood around the altar, smearing blood on the priests, and purifying the ground with the blood of animals in terms of its primitiveness, superstition, and violence. One of my teachers, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan taught me that much of what motivated the ancient Hebrews was about the mystery, frustration, and precariousness of embodied living, trying to make sense of life and death, the combination of living consciousness and a mortal body. In that framework, I can read the passage in its context and I can appreciate the significance of ritual as an effort to hallow the ground, the place, and the people.

One pattern stood out to me in the descriptions of the high priest’s vestments, a pattern of remembering, which seems to be a central theme in Judaism, not to forget what has happened before, and to bear the burden of memory as a sacred burden. The Torah describes the priest’s clothing in terms that made me think of them as mnemonic, not in a literal memorization sense, but in the sense that remembering is itself a kind of sacred act. Here is the pattern that gets repeated several times throughout the parashat (with a couple different variations)

to bear
the names (of Israel)
over your (the priest’s) heart (or on his shoulders (the ephod))
in the mishkan
to remember
in YHWH‘s presence
regularly (marking the time)

This ritualized, almost poetic, repetitive of the act of remembering becomes a practice of awareness of identity and relationship, and marks a kind of liminal enactment of the relationship between the physical and the kodesh.

Perhaps this is why I’m particularly drawn to the brief passage in Speaking Torah that I began with above. I still find myself struggling to define or understand or grasp in some meaningful way, other than experientially, the Holy. And maybe at the end, really all we can do is stand before that mystery and wonder.

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I have just gone back and added teku to several earlier posts. I had meant to make that a standard practice on this blog because I want to emphasize the ongoing path, the ongoing openness to learning and discovery. I liked the fact that the Talmud finishes many debates with the acronym תיקו as a sign of the process of Jewishness. It is, for me, the antithesis of dogma and orthodoxy in the literal sense of ‘right belief’.

The acronym stands for tishbi yitaretz mashiach u’shealot (I think it looks like this in Hebrew, but I’m not sure: תשבי יתרצ משיח ושאלות), that unanswered or unfinished extra or surplus questions will be resolved by the Messiah (Meshiach).

I haven’t even begun to grapple with the idea of the משיח (meshiach) in Judaism or with its political implications. I have purposefully put that on the back burner for now, but I suppose this is as good a place as any to start the conversation. The Christian idea of Christ (Greek for Messiah, or Anointed One) hasn’t really been operationally meaningful to me for over 15 years; although I find that I still think of Jesus as a powerful spiritual and ethical thinker (a Jewish thinker and teacher), the idea of the need for a Savior from sin is now, at best, unnecessary for me (and at worst a call for human blood sacrifice to atone for sins that cannot in any real sense be atoned for). Likewise the Jewish notion of a political messiah to restore the political power of the Jewish people (shared interestingly by both ultra-orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians). I find messianism in most of its forms—Christian, Jewish, Muslim (e.g., Shiah), Hindu (e.g., Krishna), etc.—to  create ethically problematic (to be polite about it) situations in the real world. So I simply reject the idea of the need or desirability of a messiah at all.

Since I don’t believe in a messiah, other than possibly as some kind of metaphor, I like the idea that teku really means that, since the messiah will never come, the questions are by nature unanswerable, kind of like Zen koan, and that we are meant to contemplate and struggle with them as an end-in-itself, knowing from the beginning that we will never have the answers.

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